In northwest Syria, religious minorities have suffered multiple attacks on their properties, places of worship and unknown numbers have been killed. The rights of small Christian and Druze communities that remain are likely to be further restricted by the rapidly changing political and military landscape in the area.
Talks in Astana, Kazakhstan
The Kazakh capital, Astana, has been the site of several rounds of talks organised by Russia, Iran and Turkey aimed at finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis. However, shifting power play between the different armed groups that constitute the rebel movement continues to throw up hurdles in the path towards peace.
In 2016, a number of disparate rebel militia united around militants formerly known as the al-Nusra Front after they allegedly severed their ties with al-Qaeda. The new alliance, known as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS), had early success on the battlefield, helping to break the siege of Aleppo.
However, the JFS did not participate in an earlier round of talks in Astana between representatives of the main armed opposition groups in northwest Syria and a delegation representing the Syrian government led by the Syrian Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Bashar Al-Jaafari. During these talks, the two sides discussed prospects for a nationwide ceasefire and resuming the political process.
Also not in attendance was another coalition of armed rebel groups known as the Ahrar Al-Sham Islamic Movement.
Existing tensions between Ahrar Al-Sham and JFS escalated following the Astana talks when, in an apparent effort to prevent the possibility of the groups that had gathered there uniting against it, the JFS attacked Ahrar Al-Sham in Idlib. Attacks on other armed groups that had joined with Ahrar Al-Sham soon followed. This show of strength by the JFS aimed to exploit their ideological similarities with Ahrar Al-Sham and attract more armed groups into its alliance.
International influences in the region
The interplay between the armed groups is just one element of the current dynamic in northwest Syria–understanding the international element of this dynamic is vital.
A Turko-Russian rapprochement has resulted in a sharp decline in the influence Qatar and Saudi Arabia had previously wielded on events in the region.
Ever since the Syrian uprising in 2011, most of the financial and material support emanating from Gulf States, and particularly from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, went to the Salafi Jihadi groups. However, the Turko-Russian rapprochement, coupled with Turkey’s more effective policing of its borders, made it more difficult for the JFS to recruit and transport new fighters to the area and has restricted the organisation’s access to financial and military support from the Gulf region.
New Alliances – the Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant
Within this increasingly complex picture, one of the largest armed groups in northern Syria, the Aleppo-based Zinki Brigades, had been observing the shifts in the balance of power.
After initially refusing to take sides in the contests between the rebel alliances, they have now, along with two other armed groups, merged with the JFS to form a new body – The Assembly for the Liberation of the Levant – led by Abou Jaber Al-Sheikh, a former Emir of Ahrar Al-Sham, and Abou Saleh Tahhan a former General Military Chief, also from Ahrar Al-Sham.
Outlook following shift in power structures
It remains to be seen whether the JFS will rejoin al-Qaeda and engage in global Jihad, or whether they choose to retreat to difficult terrain, such as the mountains in the Qalamoun or the coastal region, to fight a long-term hit-and-run resistance campaign, in a manner akin to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Ahrar Al-Sham, meanwhile, may be joined by other armed groups seeking to avoid being annihilated by the JFS.
In the midst of all of this uncertainty, one thing is clear: the ongoing changes in power trajectories in northwest Syria mark the end of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as a loose umbrella for the “moderate”, or more accurately, the “less Islamist”, armed groups.
“This demise of the more moderate elements within the FSA will inevitably have detrimental effects on the increasingly restricted right to freedom of religion or belief in the region, and will particularly impact the small Christian and Druze communities that remain in the area.”
This demise of the more moderate elements within the FSA will inevitably have detrimental effects on the increasingly restricted right to freedom of religion or belief in the region, and will particularly impact the small Christian and Druze communities that remain in the area. Extremist groups functioning in the region, mainly those allied with the JSF, often treat religious minorities harshly, applying severe restrictions on them. Many have sought refuge in other parts of the country. Given the fact that the situation is likely to deteriorate even further in the foreseeable future, it is not surprising that the majority of those who remained are also toying with the idea of leaving.
By CSW’s Middle East Advocacy Officer